To many outlying Missoula County residents, we’re the dark, amorphous matter that flows from ground zero. The evil goo in Ghostbusters II. The fleet of Borg assimilators. The all-consuming concrete jungle.
From a distance, the city of Missoula has long served the region as a commercial hub and a resource for services, but that distance continues to close with ongoing urban sprawl. According to federal records, Missoula gained more than 7,000 new residents—an 11.9 percent increase—between the official 2000 census and a July 2006 estimate. To those trying to preserve a rural way of life, this is extremely problematic.
Julie Case-Hacker, owner of the Case Ranch in Potomac, about 23 miles east of the city, recalls driving into Missoula as a child to pick up sundries from the mercantile (now Macy’s). Her memory paints a quiet downtown, rich with the sounds and smells of nearby mills now long since out of business.
“I can’t even stand it anymore,” Case-Hacker says. “You can’t even find a place to park.”
County residents say the ideological influence of the city spreads even faster. As rural communities use defiant urban-fringe strongholds like Target Range as a shield against Missoula’s physical expansion, influential ruralites testify that the regulatory arm of city life reached their doors long ago.
“The county commissioners are so tight with the city that we have this sad progression of things,” says Frenchtown business owner Glenn Green. “Missoula is growing, but they can’t annex Target Range because everybody in Target Range hates the city. So here we are, 20 miles away, and the county keeps coming up with ways to regulate.”
The history of imposing planning code on the rural environs of a growing city predates Missoula and, as a trend, largely defines the American West. In this case, the efforts began with a doughnut—a regulatory ring around Missoula that temporarily enforced urban-forged land-use code. The idea ran aground when concerns arose of regulation without representation since residents outside the city limits couldn’t vote out aldermen within. Montana terminated the scheme by an act of the 2003 Montana Legislature.
The Missoula Board of County Commissioners adjusted by giving more power to the Office of Planning and Grants (OPG)—a consolidated city-county planning agency created by a 1996 interlocal agreement between the two governments. Much to the chagrin of the geographic and political periphery, the new-look OPG introduced the topic of detailed land-use review to the rural sphere of Missoula County.
Right away the complaints began to pile up. County residents scoffed at being exposed to the subdivision review process, which regulates small developments as well as large. They opposed, unsuccessfully, numerous property tax bonds with service and capital improvement benefits tilted toward the city. Strict airshed requirements now encompass Frenchtown—another grievance. Most recently, impact fees and sprinkler system requirements have become the causes célèbres in county population clusters outside of Missoula. Land-use attorneys and developers predict the sprinkler issue will become a legal lynchpin sometime in the near future, as it already has in Lewis and Clark County.
The issues run deeper still.
“We pay the water fee and we’re not part of the aquifer…What do we do? Who do we have on the commission?” asks Ray Winn, a Frenchtown resident who sits on both the local fire and school boards.
On various occasions, county residents critical of OPG’s regulatory reach circled the wagons around commissioner candidates sympathetic to their plight. Their efforts always fell short. Rural citizens of Missoula County often complain that the non-districted nature of commission elections makes overcoming the urban voting bloc an insurmountable challenge. Another problem lies in the primary election process, which splits ballots along partisan lines, cutting Democratic slow-growth candidates away from the rest of the—typically—Republican rural ticket.
With larger capital investment bonds crossing the current ballot and more land-use regulations falling into place, rural Missoula County residents appear desperate to break their lives away from the urban sphere of influence. However, at the same time, their own influence continues to diminish.
Tom Porter grumbles slightly as he sifts through a stack of papers documenting his conflict with Missoula County planners.
For months now, the disabled Vietnam veteran has coaxed the interest of media types to his tale of OPG woe—a fight stemming from a decision to subdivide his lot to install a mobile home for his daughter and son-in-law. Porter admits he naively agreed to fit the small development with fire prevention systems, but says he didn’t realize at the time that the county’s requirements would eventually eclipse the value of the trailer itself.
“If you go down to OPG and ask them to show you the law for this deal, they’ll tell you that you have to go dig it up yourself,” Porter says. “They just love giving us grief.”
For an issue that has large segments of the rural county up in arms, Porter seems at home as a poster boy. The Frenchtown resident filed an official misconduct complaint in May against Scott Waldron, the Frenchtown fire chief at the time, for enforcing Porter’s subdivision review obligations while allegedly letting friends and associates with bigger projects off the hook. Deputy County Attorney Mike Sehestedt responded by calling the allegations ridiculous and Porter is now soliciting the help of various legal funds to take the complaint to state district court.
“We can’t get anything back on our subdivision, but we can let everybody know, in case they want to get a lawyer and go after OPG,” he says.
The sprinkler issue involves fire-suppression development requirements adopted by Missoula County, imposed through its subdivision review process and enforced in a manner similar to state building codes. Sprinkler systems can add thousands of dollars to any construction project and the specifics often elude new homeowners—and small-project subdividers—in the small print. Additionally, the county can deny plat approval without these measures and the legality of the enforcement mechanism is a matter of some controversy.
Missoula County takes the legal opinion that sprinkler systems are part of the state fire codes and enforceable under Montana law. Rural developers and their attorneys argue that bureaucrats are bending indistinct code to their will in the pursuit of unlawful regulation.
Whatever the case, the code is certainly vague. “This issue has been a snake in the bush for quite some time now,” admits Don Buettner, head of the state building codes office.
The enforcement side of the process is where ruralites in Frenchtown have taken a hand. During a spring special election, the voters ushered in a new fire board majority whose stated mission since taking office has been to decommission the department as an agent for enforcing county subdivision code. The philosophical conflicts between Waldron and the new trustees sparked a chain of events that eventually led to the chief’s reported dismissal (see “Firefight,” Sept. 11, 2008).
Though somewhat of an isolated development, the Frenchtown coup still echoes of a theme replayed through various episodes of Missoula County’s long history of rural malcontent.
“You’ve got a lot of people out there who don’t seem to care for OPG or subdivision review,” says Commissioner Larry Anderson, who is currently running for reelection. “There are a lot of misconceptions out there, but the Frenchtown fire board has not come to see us. I’m not sure where they’re coming from.”
Waldron, who recently filed a breech-of-contract claim against the district and its sitting board, refuses to comment on the situation.
“Many times over the past two years, talking with the folks who opposed Scott Waldron, the discussion was phrased in terms of a first step toward taking back our country,” explains John Q. Murray, publisher of Frenchtown’s community newspaper, the Clark Fork Chronicle. “Often it was in the form, ‘If we can’t rein in one local bureaucrat, how are we going to change the county government, the state government and the federal government?’”
Certainly the areas around Frenchtown, perhaps more than any other part of the county, typify that Western stereotype of valuing small government, libertarian ideals and the importance of home rule. Assuming Waldron simply and dutifully executed the code in front of him, Frenchtowners allege he was still complicit with county regulation.
“There’s people up there who don’t like Missoula County. They don’t like the laws. They don’t like to live underneath it. They think that the county is too harsh on ’em,” says former state Sen. Dale Mahlum, who lives in Evaro. “There always will be people in Frenchtown that want nothing to do with county government. They want to run their own ship.”
Sitting in a quaint one-and-a-half story farmhouse in Potomac, Julie Case-Hacker is a relic of a bygone era of state and local politics. Long before Helena became a special interests playground, she joined the table as a lobbyist on behalf of rural western Montana landowners fighting urban regulation. She represented an organization now extinct—the Missoula County Freeholders.
Even in those days, Case-Hacker, a brash talking, salt-of-the-earth rancher, measured a cut away from the typical Helena insider. (Today, even more so.) However, despite its populist origins and modest membership, her group defeated more regulation than most latter-day libertarians could dream of.
“We were just some housewives, but we’d get out the law books. We learned how to check petitions and verify signatures,” Case-Hacker says. “We were kind of notorious in a way.”
The Freeholders formed in the 1970s to keep the Potomac Valley from being zoned. It grew from there in response to a bid by Missoula County to consolidate its government with City Hall. The idea, promoted by Missoula leaders at that time, was to create something similar to the charter incorporation of Butte-Silver Bow. It earned the sponsorship of then-Mayor William Cregg and many state politicians, but, despite numerous efforts, never gained voter approval.
The credit for its defeat belongs mainly to the Freeholders, which opposed the ballot initiative three times between 1975 and 1983.
The earliest campaign against consolidation also benefited from the support of a relative newcomer to area politics—County Commissioner Barbara Evans. Evans, who went on to serve on the commission for 30 years, began her political career by opposing charter government on the committee that first reviewed the proposal.
“I felt the people on that commission wanted to rule people’s lives. They even wanted to tell you want kind of trees you could plant, and I’m not joking,” Evans says. “That kind of stuff doesn’t sit well with me.”
“We felt it was primarily coming out of Missoula,” adds Freeholder Mary Alexander, a resident of Frenchtown. “It was a huge issue and we went for the throat.”
The Freeholders heyday came in 1983, when the group challenged the county in an all-out political campaign and won by a margin of 4-1. That sealed the issue up for good, as far as most county residents were concerned. Not long afterward, the group began to fracture as its core membership began to succumb to old age. “We haven’t forgotten,” Case-Hacker says. “We’re just tired.”
“When the Freeholders disbanded I wound up with 11 boxes containing the history of the organization… Eventually, I reached a point where I just couldn’t move the boxes,” says Alexander, who adds she couldn’t get University of Montana archivists to record the files. “I tried my best to find somebody to take an interest in it.”
But, before breaking up for good, the Freeholders launched a campaign that partly defines their existence. The group aimed to splinter several pieces off of the nearly 125-year-old Missoula County to protect the land-use rights of rural residents—something that hadn’t been done for more than 70 years. Several counties had separated from Missoula between the dawn of statehood and Mineral County’s departure in 1914, but none since.
According to longtime Freeholder supporters, the group backed off of its secession petition when then-Commissioner Ann Mary Dussault convinced rural leaders that the financial burdens of creating that many new governments would actually harm the taxpayer.
“It didn’t really get off the ground too well,” Alexander admits.
The notion of secession failed to completely die with the Freeholders. Every once in a while, when frustration with county regulation passes the simmering point, a Frenchtowner or two pops up to suggest reviving that forgotten idea. Locals identify the true separatists as a group of guys out in the Petty Creek area, led by auto body shop owner John Appelt.
Due to a lengthy vacation, Appelt was unavailable to comment in this report.
Still, county secession in most Western states—Montana included—requires an act of the state legislature. The recent track record for secesh petitioners is not promising (see “You can go your own way,” sidebar). Most politicians say it’s just not done anymore.
“No. It’s unheard of,” says Mahlum, who once chaired the state Senate committee that might have heard such requests.
Surviving Freeholders concede that the idea was ill fated, but stand behind their motives.
“I guess we felt that way because we were sick and tired of people whose orientation was entirely Missoula—people who would rarely stick their faces out here unless they wanted something,” Alexander says. “We didn’t feel that we had representation, and, you know, we still don’t.”
Political observers often note that rural issues don’t float to the surface, they boil over. In Missoula County, that theory seems very much in effect when examining the recent record—the Frenchtown fire board takeover as case, and the acrimony surrounding it as point.
County residents attribute the phenomenon as a reaction to urban apathy toward the issues they face. They say both the Missoula-based media and Missoula-based county representatives typically ignore their problems until the situation devolves to a level where politics become uncivil and bitter. “Then you don’t seem rational when you get to that point,” says Lolo rancher Michele Landquist. “But you began rational.”
Landquist fancies herself the rural candidate on the upcoming race for incumbent Larry Anderson’s seat on the Missoula Board of County Commissioners, in which the rural vote could make or break the election. Since the 2007 retirement of Commissioner Barbara Evans—whom Anderson succeeded by appointment—ruralites complain that they don’t have a friend on the commission.
“I just think they’re not in touch with what’s going on out in the county,” says Mitchell Hicks, chairman of the Frenchtown fire board. “We just don’t get much representation from our county government. They want to stay with their little group in the city.”
The rural vote seemingly played into an interesting primary race with Landquist sneaking past Dennis Daneke for the Democrat’s spot on the Nov. 4 election ballot. Daneke enjoyed the support of much of the who’s-who in the Missoula progressive community—not the least of which was Mayor John Engen, who was treasurer of the candidate’s campaign.
Hicks predicts much of Frenchtown and its adjacent rural areas will likely be mobilized again in the upcoming election by the $16 million emergency service center bond and other local election items.
“Voices out here in the community have told the commissioners, ‘Wake up, you could be next,’” he says. “The only way we’re going to get government changed is to vote out the people who aren’t getting the job done.”
In an effort to fight its own public relations demons and give rural residents more opportunity to comment on county planning affairs, OPG launched Rural Initiatives in January 2006 with the intention of creating community councils all over the county. So far, only five exist and a few appear less than popular on their respective ranges.
Stan Lucier pushed to get the creation of a new community council on the upcoming ballot that would encompass all of Frenchtown and the mining district west of it, known simply as Petty Creek. The challenges of selling the idea include a general rural distaste for the councils’ organizing body and a reticence to create more bureaucracy, even though the panels wield no real power. Still, Lucier argues, it’s well worth it.
“Our idea is to have a say in some of these things,” he says. “We don’t really care too much for Missoula people telling us how and what in the hell we should be doing out here.”
Other ruralites distrust OPG’s motives in creating the community councils, particularly after the county’s first committee, in Seeley Lake, managed to organize the county’s first ever sales tax initiative. Case-Hacker promises she’ll fight the day they ever try to start a community council in Potomac.
“You understand the political theory of divide-and-conquer?” Case-Hacker says. “It comes down to our freedoms. Why can’t they just leave us alone?”
It also comes down to preserving an endangered way of life. In order to keep the range free, county opponents say they’ll stand and fight whatever comes, regardless of the odds. Rural residents not keen on schmoozing the county aim to carry on voicing their qualms with good old-fashioned piss and vinegar. Getting pulled into the expanding urban fold is simply not an option.
“I hear that and I understand that,” Anderson says. “I think it’s incumbent on these folks to that, if they want to maintain the agricultural character of their area…the way
to do that is to form a community council.
“You can’t stick your head in the sand,” he adds, “and pretend that development is not going to happen. Because it will.”